Second albums often make or break a band, particularly one with such a parochial following as Glasgow’s Butcher Boy. And with their 2007 debut Profit In Your Poetry receiving generally positive reviews there is a certain amount of interest surrounding the release of React Or Die.
Once again linking with the London-based label How Does It Feel To Be Loved?, a lover of all things jangle pop, the sprawling Scottish indie band remains the plaything of lyrical poet John Blain Hunt. Indeed, for all the sprightly pop melodies on show this is a band that essentially lives and dies on the strength of Hunt’s lyrics.
It is certainly true this time around that the band has toughened up the musical backing to Hunt’s poetic flourishes. There is a greater sense of purpose to this album than was present on the rather wishy washy Profit In Your Poetry. A trick that Belle and Sebastian and Morrissey are both adept at pulling off course, and any review of Butcher Boy is honour bound to mention both those names as the similarities are at times startling, even down to the cinema verité cover art.
The wheezing accordion that ushers in opener When I’m Asleep is one of the album’s most left-field moments, but the lyric hunkers down in traditional indie bedsit territory: “when I’m asleep/I never dream/I never feel anything”. A trilling mandolin adds another subtle layer alongside Maya Burman-Roy’s cello, creating a haunting backdrop to Hunt’s nursery rhyme styled lyrics.
It soon becomes apparent why Stuart Murdoch is a fan, with the terrific single Carve A Pattern fairly racing along on a jaunty piano line and sawing cello. Hunt’s ability to nail memorable couplets is all over the track, with “pretend to drown and I’ll pretend to swim” and “with blood and tissue I will miss you’ notable standouts. Anyone wishing to replace their worn-out copies of The Boy With The Arab Strap single should snap this one up.
You’re Only Crying For Yourself completes an impressive opening trilogy, a deceptively simple pop song that feels timeless. Hunt has noted he was aiming to replicate Del Shannon‘s Runaway and it’s a tribute to the band that they largely succeed, with a closing Moog section lending the track a tasty ’60s feel.
This Kill Will Marry Us provides further evidence of Hunt’s lyrical smarts, upending the romantic clichés of “you’re far too beautiful and kind for these times” with the bittersweet pay off “you’re far too gullible/you’re blind to these times”.
The album occasionally dips into standard indie-pop fare, with both Anything Other Than Kind and A Better Ghost failing to register much beyond their pretty melodies. But then the band will kick into the complex rhythms of Clockwork and Why I Like Babies to redeem things, with drummer Findlay MacKinnon shining on both tracks. And on the latter, Hunt finally nails the perfect Morrissey lyric: “I watch with tired eyes as you seduce yourself”.
The driving Sunday Bells is another little oddity, a disco-styled track with frantic drums and an ominous lyric. It leads into the closing title track, which starts off as a gentle acoustic shuffle but sneaks a cello and brass band into its sub-two minute running time.
Yes, the detractors will bang on about Belle And Sebastian. But to be honest who cares? This is a wry, melodic collection of beautifully played indie pop, and deserves to crop up in the end of year best of lists.